Austin Bay

Tropical Storm Erin hit the South Texas coast on Aug. 16. With 2005's Hurricane Katrina as a measure for disaster, Erin rated as a destructive nuisance. Hurricane Dean is a much bigger -- and more dangerous -- storm.

Both Hurricanes Katrina and Dean pale when compared to Hurricane Debbie, however, a category 5 storm substantially more powerful than Katrina, which hit south Texas on June 6, 2007. This "monster 'cane" struck north of the Texas-Mexico border, its winds flattening buildings and its rains flooding neighborhoods. Given its size and meteorological characteristics, Disastrous Debbie may have been as big as America's most murderous hurricane, the infamous 1900 Galveston Storm, which left 8,000 people dead and Galveston, Texas, devastated.

But Debbie -- due more to warning than fortune -- caused few casualties. Advanced notice prepared cities for the storm's furor. Wind and surge damage occurred on the coast and immediately inland, but coordinated rescue teams and relief supply convoys saved lives. With local hospitals affected by the storm, an air-delivered U.S. Air Force mobile hospital deployed to South Texas to help treat the injured.

OK, you didn't hear about Hurricane Debbie, with good reason. The super storm was a disaster response exercise, a "natural disaster training simulation" involving personnel and equipment from the state of Texas and the U.S. government.

"Disaster response" is also something of an incomplete description, for this type of multi-agency exercise is as much about disaster avoidance and disaster limitation. Fictional Debbies are designed to prepare for the eventual hard facts of Katrinas, Erins and Deans.

For decades, states in America's hurricane belt have run hurricane response exercises, so the Debbie exercise isn't a direct result of Katrina's disaster. Exercises, informed by past experience, are opportunities to examine evacuation procedures, to identify local capabilities and local inadequacies, and to develop working relationships among local, state and federal personnel. A crisis is the wrong time to determine which agency at what level can do what jobs.

Several police and crisis response officials have told me that "really useful" exercises reveal weak or antiquated plans. The exercises are a chance to "pass on good ideas" -- which is a politic way of telling someone else to revise and update his organization's plan.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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